Back to series

No recording for this sermon, we apologize for the inconvenience.

Good morning, everyone. Please go with me to Psalm 113, that’s the book of Psalms in the middle of the Bible, the one we just read Psalm 113; we’re going to read it again here, shortly. If you would like to use one of our Bibles this morning, just raise you hand, and someone will bring one to you. You are welcome to keep that if you will read it.

Psalms is a book of prayers, spiritual songs. It’s music, poetry, and like all good music, we should expect beauty, imagery, and honesty. Beauty is something we can’t live without, and it’s something that can’t be manufactured. Beauty has to be crafted, it has to be grown. In some ways, too, beauty has to be given as a gift.

To use and understand the psalms well, you have to understand what they are. The psalms are filled with imagery and metaphor, so you will make mistakes taking everything literally. A lot of the Bible is God speaking to humanity, but the psalms are humanity speaking back to God. Just like you’re going to misunderstand a foreign language without study and practice, you’re going to misunderstand what poetry is saying if you don’t put in work to speak this language.

Many of our spiritual ancestors would have considered the soul to be in three parts: thought, beauty, and gut feeling. It was believed beauty bound rational thought and gut feeling together, that without beauty in your life you would end up either as cold, emotionless rationality, able to justify anything because nothing was sacred—either that or you would end up as an impulsive creature chasing after anything you want regardless of the consequences. In our culture today we have a lot of thoughts, usually stated loudly or often without much concern for the listener, and we have a lot of people acting out of gut emotion, but we’re lacking beauty to bring the two together. The Psalms can give us that.

I want us to use the psalms as Jesus used them. This was his prayerbook, his hymnal. Mysteriously, when we pray the psalms we pray them in the Spirit alongside our God. There’s power in that, just like there’s power in singing your heart out to the Lord, even though the words are something someone else wrote, that multitudes of people have already sung. Prayer doesn’t need to be spontaneous or original to be meaningful. We have the Lord’s prayer, and the book of common prayer, and hymnals many of us have sung since childhood. Jesus, and centuries of worshippers before and after him, had the psalms.

Go with me this morning, psalm 113. I’d like to read it one more time, because especially with poetry repetition can help unfold meaning. If you will, please stand as we read the word of the Lord together. [] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me.

This psalm is a song of praise to God. Praise meaning, it tries to give reasons why God is good, worthy of being admired. Most scholars believe the psalm was written in Egypt when the Hebrew people were enslaved there, it’s part of a group of psalms called the Egyptian hallel, meaning praising God from Egypt. The closest thing we would have to this type of psalm in our culture is a negro spiritual. Like the negro spirituals, this psalm is a song of faith, a cry for deliverance, a song of suffering, and a firm belief in liberation—all at once. That’s a lot to pack into nine verses. By the time it was written down, people would have sung it as part of celebrating the passover—they were remembering the deliverance their ancestors had prayed for. But in its original form, this is a work song—I want you to imagine it being sung in the clay mines, hay fields, and brick pits of imperial Egypt as the sun bore down mid-day.

A couple of background things to have in mind before we go through it: last week we talked about how Lebanon, Greece, and Israel are prone to massive thunderstorms forming over the Mediterranean and breaking on the mountains, and so as mythology developed in those regions, the God of the Storm was the strongest, the king over other Gods. Egypt, though, is an arid climate, and it’s hot. They were only able to grow crops because they would irrigate the fields from the waters of the Nile. In Egyptian mythology, the sun god was king over all the other gods.

I looked this week at the map: Cairo is almost exactly the same latitude as New Orleans. So as you’re leaving this afternoon, and you feel the sun on your neck, I want you to think about a people who worshipped the sun as the god who ruled over other gods, because of its power. The Nile was another of the chief gods in the Egyptian Pantheon. The Sun destroys and tears down, and the waters rise, flood the fields, and give life. In that balance, ancient Egypt lived and moved. Think about that, and then think about being made to work under that sun who was called a god all day. I’m sure it was easy to begin to resent the sun, to feel like it really was oppressive.

Imagine working in the heat and suddenly, from across the field you hear someone start this song. “Praise the Lord!” He sings. And you may think, why would I praise the Lord out here in this sun, some overseer standing over me, ready to beat me? So the song begins to give reasons why even in that circumstance you should praise the Lord. The first reason, in v.1, is that they may be slaves of Egypt, but first and foremost they are servants of the Lord. From ancient times, from this time forth and forevermore, their real allegiance is to God. No matter who might stand over them, they know God is really in charge.

There’s comfort in that. If you spend your days with cruel people over you, there’s comfort in knowing really you and they answer to another authority. Like a child when their brother or sister is cruel to them and hurts them, what do they do? They run to their parents, the true authorities. And their parents can’t undo the hurt, but they can comfort, and they can exact justice.

In v.3, you hear a mention of what the Hebrew people were suffering in Egypt. “From the rising of the sun to its setting.” That sun, which beat down on them, which oppressed them both literally and spiritually, who in this land was a god, was also their time clock. They started work with the sun, and they worked until it set down. The sun is a cruel god in that way. From the rising of that sun until it sets again, the name of the Lord is to be praised. Why?

Because the Lord is God over every nation. Hmm. Get ‘em! Which nations is the Lord over? Every nation, which means Egypt, too. In Egypt the sun god, Ra, was said to have a single son and heir, the pharaoh of Egypt, who was said to reincarnate and rule forever. So the sun god who bore down on the Hebrew slaves ruled and reigned through his son, seated on a throne. A pharaoh who could have eased their suffering but instead commanded it, profited by it, made his own name great through monuments they built under the heat of the sun god, his supposed father.

Singing this psalm, though, the Hebrew people declared they were not going to praise the pharaoh and his divine father. No matter how powerful they seem, the Lord is higher than this nation. He’s even higher than the heavens, themselves. Higher than the sun who was a god whose children ruled over them cruelly. So from the sun’s rising to its setting, they would praise the Lord.

They praise God because even though God is higher than the king of Egypt, he makes himself low enough to raise the poor from the dust, and lift the needy from the ash heap, v.7. He gives the barren woman a home and children, v.9, and makes them sit among the princes of the people, like Moses sat among the princes of Egypt. This is a list of the most needy people in this society: beggars sitting in the dust; the ash heap mentioned is from a mourning ritual, where people who had gone through some great scandal or tragedy would dress in sack cloth and sprinkle themselves with ashes as a visible sign of being inwardly torn apart, inwardly repentant. You would do it to invite people into your mourning, or to show them you had repented of some sin or mistake.

And in a society where children were both your help and your livelihood, a woman being barren meant her husband oftentimes would send her away in shame, and she usually wouldn’t be able to find another family. People weren’t usually eager to marry women who had been used and then rejected by other men. These were all the people in the society no one wanted. They had no future. But our psalmist says, God wants them. God will redeem and adopt them into his family. He would come off his throne to find them, and he would lift them up to his own throne.

For each of us this morning, I’m sure there are things which make us undesirable, people who have treated you like you’re nothing. But to God you are something. To God you are someone, you are his child, and he loves you. He watches and waits on the road for you to come home.

The Bible uses the word lost to describe people who don’t really have a relationship with God. In modern times, that’s become a word that bears a lot of shame. The lost are the ones outside of the crowd; the dropouts, sinners, failures. But when the Bible uses the word lost, it doesn’t mean you’re unwanted. Lost, in terms of the Bible means, like a coin of great value, or like a priceless pearl or piece of jewelry, people can get lost—they can get to a place where they are separated from their creator, from their father, and exactly because he sees them as being of such priceless worth, he leaves everything, stops everything, to search of find them.

I said this last week, but a large part of faith is believing God is higher than other things in your life. Higher meaning he has more authority than other people who have authority over you, and his decisions will be more consequential for you, just like a supreme court is higher than a circuit court. The circuit court has power, but if there is someone higher, you can always appeal, and if that higher power is on your side whatever suffering you are going through will be a light, momentary affliction.

Last week the psalm talked about God being higher than the clouds, the weather. And with the storms in our region, the hurricanes especially, we need to know that. The rain may provide food and wealth, but God is our real sustenance. And I know the storms here affect our thoughts of the future, but if you want to know which way your life will go, toward death or toward abundant life, you really should look more to the Lord than to the weather. The heart and character of God will determine where you go and when, will determine whether you’re safe, whether you are content, where you will live.

The psalm this week asks us to believe the same thing, but instead of the weather, this psalm asks us to believe God is higher that the nations and whatever gods they serve. The Lord is high above the nations, and his glory is above the gods they worship. It’s tough. It’s hard when presidents and kings seem to have so much power over us. They wave a hand and interest rates go up, all the sudden we can’t buy a car. They sign a bill and the prices at the grocery store go up.

Or at work, whomever is over you really makes a tangible difference. If you displease them, your salary drops. Or all the sudden you can’t go home because you’re working long hours. They disapprove, and then not only are you having to do the job you’re paid to do, now you have a whole other job of proving to this person who doubts and undervalues you that you are in fact worth your salt.

But even though those things are true, what’s also true is that interest rates can’t affect how much meaning is in your life. You can’t put a price on joy or salvation. Even if you’re made to work long hours, you can still labor as unto the Lord and in your heart know God is your only real master. And even if your boss is displeased with you, your God is not. He delights in you.

This psalm is a good prayer to pray in the midst of hardship, because it promises that God hasn’t abandoned you or forgotten you. It fills me with joy to think about the Hebrew slaves under the sun singing defiantly that God is their true Lord, and he is above this nation and their sun god. But this psalm is also a good prayer to pray once you’ve come through hardship. I think about all of the people of God gathering for the passover and going up to praise him in the temple for generations singing about how God rescued their forebears when they were slaves in Egypt, how if God is able to do that, he’s able to rescue us from whatever situation we find ourselves in.

When the Bible talks about the name of the Lord, it doesn’t mean the literal name of God. There’s a lot of bad teaching out there about this, both in Jehovah’s Witness, which I would call more of a cult, but then also in popular, mainstream charismatic groups. They assign a special weight or meaning to the name of God, because of passages like this encouraging people to praise the name of the Lord, and they act like saying it out loud is going to have some sort of mystical or even magical power.

The name of the Lord isn’t a magical thing, and you don’t have to get it just right for him to hear you. Calling him God in prayer is just as good as calling him Lord, or calling him Abba, like Robyn does. Like every good parent, more than he cares about what you call him, he mainly wants you to call him.

The idea of name in the Old Testament encompassed way more than just your actual name. Name meant your reputation, too, and your family’s reputation, the quality of your workmanship as a laborer. The stories of your life and what you had done in the world. Your name was your whole identity, and in many ways, your name would have meant everything to you. Your name would have determined whether or not you could show your face in town, whether or not anyone would hire you, whether or not people were willing to make bargains with you—there were no credit reporting agencies, you traded on the strength of your name.

When the psalmist encourages us to praise and bless the name of the Lord, he doesn’t mean to bless and praise the word Lord, or the word YHWH even, with all of the deference shown to that name. What he means is, praise God for all the things he’s done. Praise God for being the type of king who would leave his throne to seek and to save people no one else wants. Praise God for treating slaves like they’re princes and bringing people without a family into family.

Praise God for the strength of his name, for being a god who creates from nothing, who can split oceans and raise the dead. His reputation is one worthy of spreading. We, his people, often do things that give him a bad reputation, but that just makes the name of the Lord even greater. His church is a church of sinners, failures, dropouts, losers and fools, and yet he works miracles through them, saves people from addiction, draws people away from obsessions with work and success and into a life lived abundantly and free. Praise the name of the Lord.

As Adam comes to lead us in a time of response, I would encourage you to believe God is higher than whatever other thing is pressing on your life. He’s more consequential, and if you learn to trust him, no matter what your circumstances, you can find comfort and justice in him.

Print your tickets